Written by Carissa Chew
On Monday 2 October 2017, as part of the University of Edinburgh’s World India Day celebrations, acclaimed author, Member of the Indian Parliament and former UN Under-Secretary-General, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, delivered a forceful and poignant speech at McEwan Hall in which he made plain the exploitative, oppressive and violent nature of British colonial rule in India. By drawing upon a wealth of evocative examples and shocking statistical evidence, within thirty minutes, Tharoor had successfully destroyed the myth of Britain’s gifts to India. This lecture was an accompaniment to Tharoor’s new book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), which is based on his speech at an Oxford Union debate titled ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’ that went viral in 2015.
The point of departure for this lecture was the beginnings of British colonialism in the South Asian subcontinent. Tharoor identified the timing of Britain’s arrival in India as crucial to the successful establishment of the Raj and then went on to elucidate the early phase of economic exploitation. The British not only raised tariffs on Indian cloth but literally chopped off the thumbs of weavers as a means of destroying the Indian textile industry. Before British rule, Tharoor argued, the subcontinent had a thriving economy based on the production of high-quality textiles that were sought after by the Roman Empire, durable wooden ships that lasted over three times longer than British ships, and an innovative method of steelmaking. Tharoor’s clinching argument was that prior to 200 years of colonial exploitation, India had 23 per cent of global GDP, but in 1947 it was one of the poorest countries in the world. To put it plainly, the British impoverished India.
The next point of focus was the callous oppression of Indian people under the British Raj. In response to the large-scale famines in the colony, Tharoor explained, the British rigidly adhered to their frugal opposition to giving charity, believing not only that it would encourage idleness, but that starvation was a natural and necessary check for overpopulation. As an alternative to giving aid to the poor, the British instead set up labour camps where Indian workers were given insufficient food rations; the portions were less than half of what the inmates of Nazi concentration camps were fed. At this point in the lecture, it was Winston Churchill who became the subject of Tharoor’s damning judgement. Tharoor identified Churchill’s decision to send grain from Bengal to Yugoslavia to increase the reserve stocks for the British army there, as the cause of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 in which 4.3 million people died. Tharoor exposed Churchill as a cold-blooded tyrant responsible for millions of deaths. Churchill had ignored warnings of the catastrophe. He had made the chilling statement, ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ And in response to a report that raised concern over on the rising death toll in Bengal, Churchill wrote in its margin the dark-humoured question, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’
To consolidate his argument, Tharoor then set out to tackle some of the ‘alleged benefits’ of colonial rule, relentlessly demolishing each of these myths in turn. Firstly, Tharoor exposed the erroneous nature of the claim that Britain ‘unified’ India, frankly dismissing this concept as ‘laughable’. After all, Tharoor explained, the South Asian subcontinent had a long history of being ruled as a single entity, a sense of civilizational unity long preceded the British presence, and the rest of the world already viewed India in this way. It was, in fact, the British, through their policy of ‘divide and rule,’ who fragmented the region upon religious lines. Secondly, Tharoor addressed the argument that the British brought railways to India, asking the crucial question: how can these railways be viewed as a gift when they were paid for by Indian taxpayers? Moreover, railways were only introduced as a means of efficiently extracting and exporting the country’s resources, and to transport British troops quickly to suppress Indian unrest, and thus the introduction of railways indirectly contributed to India’s plight. All the while the Indians were forced to pay higher train fares than the British. Pressed for time, Tharoor cut this part of his speech short but he suggested that anyone wanting to know more should read his book since each chapter tackles a different ‘alleged benefit’ of British rule.
In the final part of his speech, Tharoor asked ‘what now?’ Looking at the present day he expressed his concern over the lack of colonial memory in Britain. It is shocking that a student can study history up to A-Level without encountering colonial history, that there is no museum of colonialism, and that there are no commemorative statues to the Indian soldiers who fought in the world wars despite Indians having won more Victoria crosses than the British for their war effort. Tharoor’s attention then switched to the issue of reparations. Whilst it is estimated that economic reparations would amount to an impossible figure of $3 trillion in today’s money, the British Raj was also accountable for the deaths of approximately 35 million Indians, and therefore the damage caused by colonial rule is ultimately unquantifiable. Tharoor’s conclusion was that Britain still owes India moral reparations. In Tharoor’s opinion, this should take the form of an apology from the Prime Minister or a member of the British Royal family, perhaps on 13 April 2019 to mark the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre which saw General Dyer – who was afterwards celebrated as a British hero – ruthlessly open fire on unarmed civilians, killing 379 and wounding over 1,000.
Tharoor’s World India Day lecture was undoubtedly compelling – and I would like to point out two reasons why. The first particularly poignant aspect of the speech was the personal dimension – Tharoor’s Indian identity – which noticeably fuelled his passionate disparagement of the British Raj. Tharoor’s evocative narrative of British rule in India marked a change from the detached and impartial accounts of European colonialism that we find in textbooks, reminding us that these atrocities really did occur; they affected real people and remain in living memory today. Although Tharoor, in the Preface to Inglorious Empire, recognises the limits of his scope and the complexities of colonial history that his argument does not cover, such as the role of Indian support for the Raj, there is something valuable and attention-grabbing about his blunt rebuke of colonialism. Tharoor presents and writes an impassioned and straight-forward history that is appealing to a wider audience in a way that most academic literature is not. The second notable feature of this lecture was Tharoor’s convincing demonstration of the pertinence of the colonial legacy today. By establishing the relevance of his argument, Tharoor was able to stir up emotions of anger, sadness and guilt in his audience, actively inspiring us to change the way that we remember our colonial history.
Looking beyond the unequal Anglo-Indian relationship of the past, Tharoor’s keynote speech was introduced by Principle Timothy O’Shea as part of the longstanding relationship between India and the University of Edinburgh. Professor William Robertson, who was principal from 1762 to 1793, was the author of one of the earliest European texts about India; the University of Edinburgh is home to the oldest Indian student association in the UK, which was founded in 1876, the same year that Edinburgh’s first Indian student graduated; and by the 1920s, the University’s Indian student population was the highest in the UK. Tharoor, weary of the decline in the number of the Indian students in Britain over the last ten years, expressed his hope that the University of Edinburgh will continue its efforts to expand its connections, collaborations, and exchanges with India. The World India Day celebration concluded with Tharoor’s optimistic vision of a positive future for British-Indian relations based on forgiveness but not historical forgetfulness.
‘Acclaimed writers says India and UK can create new chapter’, 2017, www.ed.ac.uk/news/2017/acclaimed-writer-says-india-and-uk-can-create-new ; accessed 19 October 2017.
Tharoor, Shashi, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (London, 2017).